Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Beholding the Beauty of Being: Artistic Creativity in the Thomistic Tradition

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Beholding the Beauty of Being: Artistic Creativity in the Thomistic Tradition

Article excerpt

I. Introduction: The Artist as Visionary

To quote the lines of famous English poet William Blake, it is possible "to see a world in a grain of sand / and a heaven in a wild flower." While they could apply to anyone, these lines belong in a privileged way to the artist, for the artist receives a vision of reality and discovers a deeper meaning in the things that exist, that he or she expresses in a unique work of art (in Blake's case, a poem). It may not be fashionable to describe the artist as fundamentally receptive to reality, but twentieth-century Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and W. Norris Clarke, SJ, informed by the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas, discuss artistic experience in this way. Their rationale is that the artist's creative experience begins in the sense experience of the world, and that the senses are themselves fundamentally receptive. In short, their take on the artist's experience is inseparable from their understanding of Thomistic epistemology.

In the Thomistic perspective, human knowledge involves both a passive or receptive dimension as well as an active one. Knowledge always begins in the five senses (receptivity) but requires the agent intellect (activity) for the formation of concepts, the making of judgments, and the work of abstract logical reasoning. The relationship between the senses and the intellect is not one of competition, but one of profound harmony. It is this basic epistemological outlook that informs Maritain's and Clarke's accounts of artistic creativity, even as they develop the Thomistic approach in slightly new directions. Both Maritain and Clarke argue that the artist experiences reality and creates a work of art as a whole human being, using all the faculties of the soul, including the five external senses, the imagination, the emotions, the will, and the intellect. They also share the conviction that the artist's work of art is inherently connected to the artist's receptivity--the word "vision" is apt here--and the artist's vision is exactly that: a true seeing of things rather than a self-created world or a mere expression of feeling.

In a contemporary world that so often denies any possibility of objective truth or beauty, while simultaneously embracing a Nietzschean voluntarism that accepts no standard for identity except that which an individual wills for himself or herself, how are Maritain's and Clarke's views of artistic experience possible? How could it be that an artist--especially an artist, the symbolic embodiment of our insatiably self-creating culture--ultimately sees and communicates reality itself and not simply a self-created reality? Even though Maritain's and Clarke's accounts of artistic experience seem out of step with contemporary views, nevertheless, in our contemporary culture there remains a mysterious if inexplicable respect and even reverence for the artist, the filmmaker, the poet. There still remains a feeling that the artist can guide us, can inspire us, can heal us. But how is this possible? Only if the artist encounters and communicates something of shared reality is it possible to acknowledge the artist's vision as true sight.

The aim of this article is to show how Maritain's and Clarke's accounts of artistic creativity offer a solid foundation for understanding the artist as "visionary." Both of their accounts rely upon and point to a Thomistic epistemology that acknowledges the receptive dimension of knowledge--a true correspondence of the mind to reality that has its roots in sense experience--as well as an underlying metaphysics that allows for the intrinsic beauty of being. Only if there is a real shared beauty to experience can an artist actually guide, inspire, and heal through his or her art. The artist's role, then, is to see and experience the beauty of reality and to communicate that vision as only an artist can: in a unique and embodied form of knowledge that is a work of art.

In order to make the case for this understanding of the artist's creativity, I will first explain beauty as a "transcendental property of being" according to the Thomistic tradition as embodied by Maritain and Clarke. …

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